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Weighing In

Ownership of Learning: The Siren Song of IT

The New York Times, December 28, 2008, in an article entitled "The Parent-Teacher Talk Gains a New Participant," reported a new trend in K-8 education: including the student. My thought was, yes, of course, why hasn't this always been the norm? The principal of Tefft Middle School in Streamwood, Illinois said: "Five years ago, the most important person--the student--was left out of the parent-teacher conference. The old conferences were such a negative thing, so we turned it around by removing all the barriers and obstacles."

The Times reporter went on to say that the students were not only allowed to attend "but also to lead the gatherings instead of anxiously awaiting their parent's return home with the teacher's verdict on their classroom performance." When this program started, in 2003, only 75 parents attended. Most recently, the number has gone up to 525, a seven-fold increase. The baton was passed to the student and everyone--students, teachers, and parents--was more engaged in the process.

We in higher education have opportunities with new technologies to similarly pass the baton to students through extending learning transactions beyond the classroom and faculty office. We have more opportunities to create virtual spaces where students have a larger role--ownership--in the work done in these spaces. We have more applications and databases that allow younger students to do analyses and simulations that only older students could do before technology entered the scene. Communication with teachers and learners in other parts of the world is easy, even in real time. The Web and Web 2.0 applications in particular offer an astounding array of places to meet and learn. Do I hear rejoicing? No, not you, dear vendors.

Why is there so little rejoicing at the advent of Web 2.0? How do the platitudes in the previous paragraph play out in practice? In particular, how can students' ownership of their own learning be more explicit?

An example: The driver on a long car trip may find the trip tiring but probably not boring, while the passenger may indeed be bored. Why? The driver owns the trip more than the passenger. The passenger is a passive recipient of motion and vector.

The problem with not owning the trip is that you can't replicate the route even though you rode the whole way. We've all had this problem of having someone else drive us or direct us and therefore never learning the directions. You have to drive the route yourself, and even make mistakes, before you learn the route yourself.

When using software applications supported by the university or college, students are not driving. They are in another iteration of the classroom that is owned by the teacher. The teacher is driving. Some institutions have tried to get around the no-own, no-learn conundrum by creating a non-institutional-looking portal named "My [something or other]." These institutions understood the problem: If technology is owned by the institution, it is no more liberating to the mind than the teacher-owned classroom.

And, for decades, colleges and universities have created and sustained various ways for students to learn through experiential learning of one flavor or another. Get the student away from the classroom and they'll learn better, we could whimsically claim.

So, in keeping with this "get them away" theme, let's send them off to do work in Web 2.0 spaces; let's let them create learning communities of students who are in the same class or in other classes; let's think of Web 2.0 as a whole new variety of experiential learning.

And, at this point, I hear folks muttering about loss of control, of oversight, of institutional responsibility: "Students won't learn, they'll just play. Besides, what kind of learning is going on?"

It's time for a model of co-discovery I read about recently where students all choose a Web site for the class to try out and evaluate. The teacher didn't know which site they would choose so the students owned the choice and the site they had chosen. The students didn't know how the site could be used for teaching and learning. So, both teacher and students needed to learn from each other. They chose a number of sites during the semester and succeeded in using a few but discarded most.

As this teacher became familiar with more and more sites, she learned how to create assignments at various Web 2.0 sites, and she was able to build those assignments into her syllabus. This teacher gained a new participant in her learning design work--the student--just as the middle school in Illinois gained a new participant in the teacher-parents meetings. When you get to drive, you learn the route.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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